LET ME ADDRESS THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM
NONVIOLENT MARIJUANA OFFENDERS WITH LIFE
Many years ago I started to look for nonviolent marijuana offenders with sentences of life without parole. It was an obsession since my youngest brother had received this sentence as a first time nonviolent marijuana offender and we couldn’t believe that the sentence was possible. His appeals were all completed and all relief denied. That was when I thought I should become educated.
I used the phrase marijuana offenders with life sentences. The feedback was quick, unmistakable and emphatic. Marijuana offenders do not receive life sentences unless they are violent.
At that time no one believed that marijuana offenders could receive life sentences when there was absolutely no violence, so I added Nonviolent Marijuana Offenders sentenced to Life for Pot.
I did not receive push back against the phrase nonviolent marijuana offenders for a while, but as advocacy groups broke out other categories for sentencing relief: eg. Crack cocaine disparity, juveniles, women, minorities, etc., they would not talk about the category of nonviolent marijuana offenders with life and other egregious sentences as a category. I know that when people read about a marijuana offender with a life sentence they immediately believe that there are dead bodies. I know this because I have had to respond to this continually over the years.
I understand why criminal justice reform advocates do not want to say nonviolent marijuana offenders – it implies that people with violence in their case are not worthy of relief, conversely I know that saying Marijuana offenders with life sentences implies to most people that there are dead bodies. This is especially true in the current climate of legalization. How can we to tell the story of this egregious sentencing without being able to describe the offence, the person and the charge? Telling the story of these individuals does not interfere with advocating for sentencing relief for other categories.
I am somewhat convinced that the inability to talk about this category has been responsible for this category of people being the Prisoners Left Behind.
They were under represented in clemencies granted by CP-14 as only 11 marijuana offenders with life sentences were granted commutations from President Obama out of the 1,715 commutations granted. The category of marijuana offenders is not addressed in the First Step Act. The public still does not believe there are nonviolent marijuana offenders with life sentences. Most people that contact me believe that the first step act gives sentencing reductions to all that I advocate for. They believe this because it is natural category for relief.
Even today, when advocates are asked about nonviolent marijuana offenders serving life sentences they can’t advocate for the category, but say things like well, they were kingpins. That seems to be how they justify not acknowledging the category. It’s painful and the result has been that this category has not been included in lobbying for sentencing relief and clemency.
A much better way to talk about why they have life sentences would be to explain that they are victims of the trial penalty. Almost all of these individuals were charged with conspiracy and went to trial. This would be educational for those not familiar with our criminal justice system, but the simple statement that they were kingpins implies that the sentence is just and there is no need to modify it. Being charged with a conspiracy and going to trial is the perfect combination for an egregious sentence for a nonviolent offense.
Please let us tell the story of this category of people who are serving life and other egregious sentences for marijuana. If we can’t do this they will be left behind by sentencing reform.